Vigan is undoubtedly one of the most popular cities in the Philippines, treasured for its rich cultural and historical heritage, and often called as the “Intramuros of Ilocandia.” Of the five Philippine properties listed under the World Heritage List, Vigan is the only city declared as a World Heritage Site. There are tons of beautiful snapshots of Vigan available online, but it will take a personal experience to fully see and understand what charmed UNESCO into embracing the historical city.
Knowing this, I have long included Vigan in my list of must-visit places in the country, as all Filipinos should. When the time finally came for a much needed R&R (Rest and Relaxation) and my birthday drew near, I took the chance to finally visit Vigan with some great friends.
I have written a lengthy travelogue that will hopefully be of use to those who wish to go on an adventure in Vigan. Enjoy!
Background and History
Most people are probably not aware that Vigan is actually an island that used to be separated by Abra River, Mestizo River, and Govantes River from the mainland. During the pre-colonial period, Vigan used to be a primary trading spot where Chinese merchants, sailing from the South China Sea with their junks, bartered with natives from the Cordilleras. They would exchange exotic goods obtained from Asian Kingdoms for mountain products like gold and beeswax.
Immigrants (not surprisingly, most of them were Chinese) eventually settled and intermarried with the natives of Vigan, jumpstarting the multi-cultural bloodline in the region.
It is also said that Vigan became a settlement for Chinese traders from the Fujian Province. According to a story on how the city got its name, these traders called the area “Bee Gan (Hokkien),” meaning “Beautiful Shore.” The Spanish conquistadors had most likely interchanged V and B, and spelled the Hokkien name as “Vigan.”
Spanish conquistador Juan de Salcedo, grandson of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, was sent to explore the Northern Philippines with about 80 soldiers in 1571. Salcedo travelled mostly in Ilocos Sur, and set foot on Vigan’s shores on June 12, 1572. In honor of Prince Ferdinand, King Philip II’s son who died at the tender age of four, Salcedo established “Villa Fernandina de Vigan” after completing his successful explorations of the North.
Vigan became the capital of Salcedo’s encomienda, with the old Ylocos Province (comprised of present Ilocos Norte, Ilocos Sur, Abra, La Union, and a portion of Mountain province) as his hacienda or estate. He was also given the title “Justicia Mayor de esta Provincia de Ylocos.”
The jurisdiction was awarded to him for his services to the King of Spain. Salcedo spearheaded the Christianization of the province by bringing Augustinian Missionaries to Vigan in January 1574.
An anecdote passed down through generations on where the name “Vigan” came from tells about a Spanish soldier strolling along the Mestizo River bank. Stopping a native of the place, he asked, “Como se llama usted de esta lugar? (What do you call this place?)” The native, who didn’t understand Spanish, scratched his head, and thought that the Spanish was pointing to a plant. He then replied in Ilocano, “Bigaa Apo,” referring to a giant taro plant that then thrived at the riverbank.
From the union of Vigan’s Chinese and Spanish heritage, several elite Chinese-Mestiza families emerged and adopted Hipanic surnames. Some families have decided to keep their Chinese-derived family names (like the Sy-Quia family), but have fully adopted the Hispanic culture.
They say that there are journeys where getting to your destination is half the experience. With Vigan, this is somewhat true. If you travel by day, you get amazing views winding roads, mountain slopes, and sparkling shores. Travel by night, especially if you chance upon a full moon, will treat you to beautiful silhouettes and road lights for interesting night shots.
Travelling by bus is by far the most common mode of transportation to Vigan. Travel time usually takes 8 hours for night trip, and 9-10 hours for day trip. There are several bus line options that offer trips to Vigan, such as Partas, Farinas, Dominion, and Maria de Leon. Partas, which has its own terminal in Vigan, is so far the most popular bus company when it comes to bus commute to the historic city, most likely because of their speedy trips.
I think it’s always better to take the night trip because of the relatively shorter travel time, and you can sleep it away if you want (or if you can) so you can get to business straight in the morning.
Vigan is a small town, but it has many landmarks and noteworthy locations. It is possible to tour around the town in two or three days. However, if you feel like visiting and enjoying every location on the checklist, it may take you more than that.
Our stay in Vigan was only for two full days, so we decided to just visit the most popular locations. It was indeed too short of a trip for me, but at least it gave me a reason to really push myself to go back and scour the rest of the attractions, especially the museums and ancestral mansions. Hopefully, in the near future.
Before you begin touring, you may want to pick up a brochure from the Heritage Village Admin Office in Calle Crisologo. It already contains the city map, list of places to visit, special attractions, and tips on how to get around the city.
According to the brochure, touring on foot is the best way to explore Vigan. I couldn’t agree more, since most attractions are near each other and can be reached by short walks. For those who don’t feel like touring on foot, other options are tricycle rides at Php. 10 per person, or calesa rides (horse-drawn carriages, still a common mode of transportation in the city) at Php. 150 per hour.
I will be posting the rest of the travelogue here in installments, 1 post per location. Meanwhile, take a sneak peek at some of the locations I will be featuring soon!